Shot Through with Brightness: The Poems of H. D.
The poem of our desire is a radiant form of virtual life. H. D. (born Hilda Doolittle, 1886–1961) wrote poems that shed such light.
Badly anthologized for decades as Ezra Pounds' Imagiste acolyte, she is best known by only her earliest poems. Her other poems give critical theorists clues to the stories they read in her memoir-like novellas, which augment our sense of a woman's fate among the explosive changes of twentieth-century culture. H. D.'s life rewards their study, as a good shelf-full of recent books demonstrates. But her life, and her versions of it, have over-shadowed the poetry of her poems—the non-prose, non-fiction central to her being.
So, for once, let's forget her beauty, and the string of amorous famous writers who sought her out. Never mind that she starred in an anti-racist silent film with Paul Robeson. Never mind she held her own throughout psychoanalysis with Freud, himself. Never mind her exotic travels, her busy androgyny, her splendid daughter, her voluntary exile abroad, her great clothes. Never mind, even, her two sublime strokes of luck: Winifred Bryher, her loyal, glorious patron, lover, and friend for some forty years; and Norman Holmes Pearson, who for thirty-plus years befriended her writing, its public relations, and its most advantageous publication.
All that is history, a done deal. What lives are the poems, and plenty of them. A fat volume of Collected Poems, which includes Sea Garden (1916), The God (1913–1917), Translations (1915–1920), Hymen (1921),Heliodora (1924), Red Roses for Bronze (1931), and Trilogy, which consists of The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1944), and The Flowering of the Rod (1944), take us from 1912 to 1944. Two important books of new poems follow: Helen in Egypt (1961) and the posthumous Hermetic Definition (1972). First to last her work is shot through with brightness, streaks of lines and tunes, excited recognitions, hints of transfiguring.
H. D. is a poet who counts on her pleasure in the intense intuition it takes to unify sound and picturing. This serves her gift for co-opting ordinary phrases, making them memorable in oddly elevated ways—as she says, "realizing a self / an octave above." She never loses her verbal music.
We can trace the development of her poems, beginning with her early Imagiste poems, which are vivid, vehement, and static; maybe, in their strained, metaphors, deliberately odd. Waves become trees. A leaf is a green stone. Poems are addressed to a storm, a twig, a moon; poems are spoken by gods, goddesses, and ancient heroes: Pygmalion, Demeter, Eurydice. Their unsituated significance comes to us chiefly through the almost liturgical stance of the poet, who takes great stylistic care to speak as though entranced.
With the shocks of World War I, H. D.'s poems face outwardly more, and convey epiphanies of eros and loss. They are haunted by the dread of abandonment, acted out so as to occasion abandonment. Inner life comes into poetic focus not directly but by analogy; a self is revealed by how it is identical with the selves imagined from Latin and Greek literature. This displacement of self-concern serves her need; she can confront herself more frankly across the saving distance of imagined time and place. She will count on this device, a sort of roman á clef from this point through her last book published in her lifetime, Helen in Egypt (1961), in which Freud is represented as Odysseus—a truly post-modern game of equivalences.
Scattered among her associative narratives, the dramatic monologues and dreamy soliloquies, are a selection of poems that experiment with her understandings of the metrics she encountered in Greek and Latin texts. They are refreshing alternatives to free verse. They don't fit Modernist conventions, but are metric in that indestructible way of English lyrics since before "Western wind, when wilt thou blow" —fluent, supple, memorable, both tender and cool.
Northrop Frye says some poems resemble riddles in their witty reasoning, and contrasts them with poems that, like magical charms, lure reason to sleep so that other mental events may emerge. H. D.'s shaped lyrics are, in Frye's sense, perfectly charming. Here, from Heliodora, in a chant promising the peace of oblivion, the poem "Lethe" begins:
Nor skin nor hide nor fleece
Shall cover you,
Nor curtain of crimson nor fine
Shelter of cedar-wood be over you,
Nor the fir-tree
Nor the pine.
The sense is in the sound. Every line murmurs—easing forgetfulness into being. The shift from iambics to a lighter, quicker pair of lines intrigues the attention. The three stanzas are matched in rhythm, line for line, fluent and sayable. Volume hardly matters; these verses float whether voiced as whispers or commands. They bind the entire world to act out what the "you" wishes for. In stanza one, the "you" is freed from domestic enclosures and eclipses. In stanza two, the sensual ties of nature are loosened. The last stanza is an escape from the concern or care of other human beings, and culminates in the surge of the poem's turn with "The full tide to cover you" followed by the remarkable cadence of the last two lines, "Without question, / Without kiss." With them, the poem is embedded under an oceanic plentitude.
Others of H. D.'s shaped lyrics are plotted differently, but with a similarly sharp-keyed listening to the weight and speed of every syllable. I think of "Stars wheel in purple. Yours is not so far . . ." ("VI, Let Zeus Record") or "All Greece hates / the still eyes in the white face," ("Helen"), and perhaps half a dozen more. Perfected as they are, it is not her usual way of working, but deeply satisfying—like Picasso's drawings.
Attention to every syllable is her way, though. It is tricky to explore this, but I think it is a skill that I (and perhaps all who write) can learn more about, by reading her. She speaks in letters to Pearson about the decisions she faces while making a poem, calling her method intuitive—a matter of being quiet and heeding the mental pulse of sound. It is part of her genius that she senses or hears so acutely.
Of course there is more to her sound than the piece-work of syllables. Hers is a music made only in part by separable bits of sound. It is the complex connectedness of syntax and rhetoric that makes the voice resonate. Particularly in her earlier poems, she loves a breathless rhetorical rush: "O be swift— / we have always known you wanted us . . ." ("The Helmsman") and "What are the islands to me, / what is Greece, / what is Rhodes, Samos, Chios, / what is Paros facing west, / what is Crete? . . ." ("The Islands").
By 1931, in the rather ignored Red Roses for Bronze, she achieved a greater reliance on her cadences, and a greater variety in the way she lets them breathe out tones imbued with meaning. This lets her sustain the rush under and eloquent forward pressure until a completed shape emerges.
Here is an excerpt from the last section of "In the Rain," a marvelous seven-part dispute with herself about a love affair:
is bound with the myrtle,
is bound with the bay,
is bound with the red
why you stay with us,
why you trifle and traffic
if you lose,
if you gain,
do you care?
It is, among other things, a terrific dramatic soliloquy, and is so because of the intimate mix of sound with changing emotions, ready metaphors, and those flowers. (See Elaine Scarry's invaluable Dreaming by the Book for more on poets' imagining of flowers.)
The dramatic nature of poems like "In the Rain" stemmed from her recent involvement with film. Since 1927, she had worked with Bryher on her first film-as-art magazine, Close-Up, and had taken part in a film, Foothills, which the great director G. W. Pabst found interesting. Drama, with its characterizing speeches, was on H. D.'s mind, and continued to enlarge the eloquence of her poems. The look of her lines on the page was still deliberately arranged for openness—an on-going experiment. Her expertise grew to include a lively movement across and among pauses, via incremental repetitions, snaps and hums of consonants, and much discrete assonance. These guide a reader eager to feel out her tunefulness.
By the time WW II broke out, H. D. was at the height of her idiosyncratic powers. While Bryher was engaged in many heroic journeys and sorties, rescuing—thanks more to sheer wit and towering courage than to the money she was able to spend freely—a considerable number of those Hitler hunted, H. D. remained in London during the bombing. Her wish to record the way social cohesion sprang to life enabled her, I think, to find new forms of writing and a new degree of narrative clarity. Her long practice of composing cadence after cadence into accounts of mythic imagining helped her to tell the real tale of events—and then to elevate her grasp of them by spelling out their likeness to mythic literary figures and constellations. Like Freud, she cherished the founding plots of the Greeks and knew the assertions of The Golden Bough.
In Trilogy, her epic poem in three parts, written during World War II, she enters another phase of her writing—putting her visionary impulses to new uses. H. D. reports on war-torn London—not envisions, not invents or ennobles, but reports. The life of a bombed civilian city is of first importance; the speaker is one of its civilians. For the first time, H. D.'s "we" includes herself among her fellow citizens. Although she does not abandon her interest in exquisite archaic costumes and concordances of divine masks, (they insinuate their numinous difference overtly, not as remote and impossibly lofty), they let H. D. praise the valiant for their heroic hopes and struggles by likening them to an antique past that is simultaneously in her mind with the present. It is a gratifying, liberating change of stance and of tone: H. D.'s openly assigned parallels of now and then allow us to imagine, as she does, the parallels among visionary spirits. (The very last poems, in Hermetic Definition, also celebrate her final encounters with lordly figures in modern dress. Although old, she retained her capacity for awe and attraction to beautiful human beings, and her willingness to sing their value.)
Since H. D. was now a witness—exalted but sober—she found the stanzaic form of two or three lines, their length not tiny but variable, their rhythm related to speech. I am reminded as I read them of the assertion, "I John saw, I John testify." When the text turns from London to the hierarchies of divine beings ("the Genius in the jar / which the Fisherman finds . . .", the "pearl of great price," and the poet as "bearer of the secret wisdom"), H. D. is able to suspend our disbelief by virtue of the way the couplets convey a tone of testimony. She is testifying to, and explaining concretely, what she has seen, partnered with what she has thoroughly imagined. She, no less than Freud, believes that "partnering" underlies our ordinary knowledge and is important to our true understanding of our real lives.
By the time the third part of the Trilogy is completed, this understanding includes a vision of a man and a woman as equal seekers of true insight, helpful to each other. The relocation of the sacred and the holy as inherent in human concourse is a vastly ambitious task for a poet. H. D. circles it, moves tentatively to suggest it, and is able to convince us of her vision because it rises out of her experience of people in danger who, caring for each other, transcend their isolation. She redefines the divine, in their image. The turn of Trilogy's plot comes early in the second part, as H. D. celebrates a half-burnt-out apple-tree in this section of "Tribute to the Angels":
Invisible, indivisible Spirit,
how is it you come so near,
how is it that we dare
approach the high-altar?
we crossed the charred portico,
passed through a frame—doorless—
entered a shrine; like a ghost,
we entered a house through a wall;
then still not knowing
whether (like the wall)
we were there or not-there,
we saw the tree flowering;
it was an ordinary tree
in an old garden-square.
H. D. had an active and eloquent lifetime of long imagining. When she brought that experience to the experience of seeing her city bombed, her poems could name the sanctity of the ordinary, and the great salvific power that belongs to the community of ordinary human beings . . . no mean accomplishment.